License plates not advertising space


There's broad consensus among Texas newspapers and commentators that the Confederate flag should be kept off Texas license plates.

The consensus is right — the flag has no place on a state license plate — but it's not a free speech issue. It's more of a story about a state scheme to increase revenues that went wrong.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard a case involving specialty license plates last week.

"On Monday, the Supreme Court (considered) whether the decision to exclude the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) from the specialty license plate program violated the organization's free speech rights under the First Amendment," CNN reported. "Most states have some kind of specialty license plate program and this is the first time the justices will take up the issue to explore the rules for distinguishing between government and private speech."

There are all kinds of specialty license plates, which Texas drivers can obtain for an added fee. Homage is paid to colleges, to activities such as hunting and fishing and various sports. There's a "Ducks Unlimited" plate and a "Fight Terrorism" plate.

But should there be a Confederate flag plate?

Texas' former Land Commissioner thinks so.

"A request by Sons of Confederate Veterans to honor the service of the group's forefathers with a Texas license plate is a simple fund-raising effort by a historical association with a long history of civic involvement," he wrote last year. "As a statewide elected official, I sponsored the plate because of my commitment to Texas history — even the history others might find offensive. It's the same reason I sponsored a license plate to honor the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, another private, nonprofit organization interested in marketing its members' heritage with a license plate that displays the group's logo and name. Both plates represent private organizations proud of their history. Both are symbols for service to the state of Texas."

Critics quickly objected to Patterson comparing Confederate forces to African-American "buffalo soldiers." Others point out the racist message implicit in the Confederate flag.

"Even free speech has limits," Texas NAACP president Gary Bledsoe said.

Actually, it really doesn't. Even offensive messages are protected. But the problem here isn't the message. It's the medium.

Why is the state of Texas selling ad space on its license plates?

It's a cheap money-making scheme that was bound to end up in controversy.

The San Antonio Express-News has a good take on the matter. "If you want to wear a T-shirt that supports the Confederacy, go for it. You have the right to express yourself, even if some disagree with the thought you express. But not every thought expressed by an individual should be sanctioned by the government, and a good example would be license plates that feature the Confederate battle flag."

Whether the plates represent private speech is what the Court will decide. What's already clear is the policy behind them is a public blunder.

Cars come with two bumpers each. That's plenty of space for Texans to convey whatever message they wish.

Let's get license plates out of the message business.


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